rushthatspeaks: (sparklepony only wants to read)
I swear Naomi Mitchison was writing things in the twenties that nobody else considered for decades. This collection, which came out in 1929, ends with a short story set in an extrapolated dystopian 1935 Britain in which, to pacify the incredibly poor, short-lived, and overworked masses, every year everyone above a certain income carries out the plot of Shirley Jackson's 'The Lottery', publicly.

Of course, Shirley Jackson didn't write 'The Lottery' until 1948.

When I think of Mitchison I think of her as out of her time, as a voice we still haven't caught up to, and I also think of her as a historian, as one of those few writers who really internalizes the ways that people thought in different parts of the past and can show how different it was.

Barbarian Stories is not quite as glowingly, magnificently brilliant as The Delicate Fire or Memoirs of a Spacewoman, but it is an amazing book: a collection of short stories, none of which contain any characters in common, none of which share a geographical setting, none of which have plots that are in any way similar, none of which even take place within fifty years of one another, which are nonetheless clearly and obviously all about the same thing. The key is in the title. In each of these stories, there are two cultures or groups which meet, sometimes clashing and sometimes not; these are stories about the ways that groups of people see one another as human, and don't, about the drawing of lines in the sand, about how this can be done within a tribe and outside it. Nobody has the moral advantage, though the sides who think that they do are more likely to be worse.

So there are people of Iron Age Dorset here, a woman whose chieftain husband has been captured by enemies, desperate to ransom him so that his followers do not make her a common possession, cold pragmatism backed with solid bravery backed with cunning, and loyalties turning on a dime for the main chance. There is a Roman citizen captured by pirates from the North, who complains all the while about the food and the weather and the work and cannot see that the people who have caught him are ransoming him fairly and dealing with him more lightly than his temper might provoke. There are the Varangian guards of Byzantium, facing the practices of courtship of the Byzantine Greek women who differ from them in everything from height to religion, all sides lost in a morass of total sexual confusion. There's the ghost of an early Christian martyr, speaking to the author to explain how it all went badly, how difficult it is to be brave at the last even if you mean to be good; there's a young Roman boy in Britain and his father and his uncle, who ride to a place called Mai Dun and cannot figure out what the natives built it for, or why it is filled with sheep. There are wishing wells and angry devils, crops planted and crops failed, attempted rape and successful marriage, Harald Hadrada of Norway helped in battle by his dead relative Saint Olaf. And all of it comes down to the increasingly angry and confused under-question: how do you decide which side to be on? and why does there have to be a side?

The writing style changes, story by story, clear and simple language in the early Bronze Age moving to the crisp diction and sunny images of the reach of Roman law, and then the confusion and complexities of Byzantium. There are happy endings and unhappy endings and uncertain ones, and many of the stories are very short for the punch they pack, though some are better overall than others (the one with the martyr's ghost comes so close to working, but doesn't, quite, is ever so slightly too sentimental a voice).

Someday I may read a Mitchison that doesn't read as though it were written yesterday about tomorrow. This is not that day; I recommend this. It's less ideologically slanted than I've made it sound, for it does care about its characters and settings and plots individually, deeply, and it is mostly questions rather than answers.

And then that final story, both extrapolation of her question and a possible answer to it (the mere shift in setting from past into future lends the never-was the semantics of distressed, unlikely prophecy): the lottery which the observer finds completely numbing, neither horrific nor interesting, another day at the races-- but, she thinks, the people must get some satisfaction from it; only the death of those they hate can make their lives bearable, even if it's almost entirely symbolic and enacts no real change. Interestingly, this story predicts that there would be a second world war, worse than the first. I don't see many stories from the twenties that do that. The killing of the rich was started, here, as a gesture against the war profiteers by a tired and traumatized generation of veterans. I'm not sure how well it would read without the weight of the entire book behind it, but as a climax it's so sharp it cuts almost painlessly. After all, what else is anybody going to do, in times like that, considering?
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When I walk into a new library, where I have not been before, usually I go to the card catalog and poke around a little, to see if it is a good and thorough library, or at least one with unexpected erudite corners. There are a handful of authors and works I use for this, because only good libraries have them: Lucy Boston's adult work, Sylvia Townsend Warner's letters, the correct three novels by Elizabeth Goudge. (All the books that make me happy that I can't afford: Goudge's Valley of Song starts at fifty on abebooks and only goes up.)

And of course Naomi Mitchison. Who wrote so many books, of which so few are findable; just about everywhere has The Corn King and the Spring Queen, and Small Beer very kindly recently reprinted Travel Light, but we are speaking here of a writer whose first book was published in 1923 and whose last in 1998, whose full bibliography is more than ninety titles. Of which, given my general lack of finance, I have despite inveterate library and used-bookstore scrounging managed to read-- not own but read-- five, counting the one tonight. It is intolerable, because every single one I have read has been a treasure. The library in town here has no Mitchison at all, but the university library has, bless them, three, so I've two more to look forward to. Therefore it is down in my books as a good library and nothing can change that.

Now the thing about Mitchison is that she is, somehow, beyond or outside of time. I don't know how. The Delicate Fire was first published in 1933, and there are precisely two other books it reminds me of, in tone and in nature, and they are Ursula Le Guin's Four Ways to Forgiveness (1995) and Laurie Marks' Fire Logic (2003). Mitchison has that nature to her, where she reads as though she were, even now, writing this very minute, or tomorrow.

This is not one of the things she did in fantasy or science fiction directions; it is a collection of historical short stories and poetry. The poetry is sadly mostly negligible, although there are a few turns of phrase that make me blink and look at it again, and the couple of things that are narrative and poetry both are amazing. The fiction is arranged chronologically according to when it is set, beginning in ancient Greece and moving through the Vikings.

The title piece is a delicate novella set in Mytilene, on Lesbos, during a summer one young girl spends there before being married; and we gradually realize that this girl's mother had a history with the poet, Sappho, when they were girls together. It's a piece that works by indirection and physical detail and then hits you with the poetry right between the eyes, with the specific moments that must have gone into the poetry, figs and orchards and ocean and wedding songs and mud.

But the center of the book, the interlinked stories that together make a novel (it is novel-length) follow several people who were citizens of the city of Mantinea, when it was sacked, and the men were sold north to Macedonia and the women sold to the Macedonian settlers of the town. The couple at the center of it, Aglaos and Kleta, are fairly newly married, deeply in love, and it is a hard parting: they vow, of course, to return to one another, with their child, and Kleta's brother, and remake their family. But there is a lot of blood and time and pain and ocean in the way of that.

This ought to be depressing, and it ought to be unbelievable, and it is neither; both kindness and cruelty are sufficiently unexpected. It is Kleta I am most amazed by, because even nowadays people do not write women this way, Kleta who will do what she has to do and bear the children she has to bear and find, somewhere, the kind of strength no one ever really recognizes but herself, but she knows her own power. Kleta is so amazing, I cannot get over it. Certainly you can see Mitchison's politics in this work, if you are looking for them, certainly you can say it's not gritty enough or too gritty or anything like that, but for me it walks a perfect transcendent line between real pain and real grace. There is a moment here where two people fall in love, and it was both precisely the best possible thing and precisely the worst possible thing for both of them, at the same time, and writers are always trying to do that in fiction, but I think this may be the best I've seen it done.

Ah hell, this is Naomi Mitchison, I don't know why I'm trying to review her, that writer I am so glad I came to as an adult because if I had met her as a child I would have tried to write like her instead of like myself. There are books and writers who are good and great, and then there are the ones who are enduring comfort, enduring certainty that fiction can do what one always wants it to, the things it almost never does do. I cannot make her sound as truly new and different and quietly explosive as she is. I only hope that someday the rest of us can catch up to some of the things that she did in the thirties.

Because I can: have some of her narrative poetry. )


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